The issue could prove politically damaging to the president, who relied, in part, on hundreds of thousands of typically loyal Republican Cuban Americans in 2000 to narrowly win Florida and, as a result, the White House.
The president's advisors believe Florida could be pivotal for his reelection next year. Democratic challengers are already angling to exploit the flap, with Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman calling a South Florida news conference earlier this week to declare the repatriation an ''abandonment of American values,'' and then showing up at the Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana to mingle.
But the statements by the president's younger brother -- a Miami resident and fluent Spanish speaker with credibility among exile activists -- could serve to help repair the damage by reminding Cuban Americans of the brothers' close ties to them.
The governor acknowledged in the interview that losing Cuban-American support could be devastating to the GOP, noting that President Bill Clinton's success in wooing even a mere third of their vote helped him win Florida in 1996.
A key critic on Thursday welcomed the potential for changes in policy but attributed the governor's assurances to politics.
''I think they're going to have to do something, because they can't win Florida without the Cuban-American community's overwhelming support,'' said Joe Garcia, executive director of the influential Cuban American National Foundation, whose top leadership has been especially critical of the Bushes in recent days. ``Unfortunately, it took the foundation and others demanding action over things that were promised three years ago.''
In the interview, Gov. Bush called Lieberman's move a ''repugnant'' political play, saying that he registered his disagreement with the White House ``with respect, not rancor.''
Acknowledging a failure by the White House to articulate a ''coherent policy'' on Cuba, the governor added that the president would announce major changes in policy sometime before the 2004 election.***